On a Moral Dilemma
I found myself in a moral dilemma. The nature of the dilemma is unimportant to this essay. Here I am concerned with what it feels like to be in such a predicament. All too often, we congratulate ourselves for bravely making moral decisions, nobly choosing the more difficult path of righteousness in the face of evil. We give ourselves credit for acting morally when, in fact, we are probably only behaving according to habit and custom. If you feel that you are courageously making the right decision, and if this feeling is clear and unambiguous, then, of course, the situation does not present a moral dilemma. The quandary of an actual moral dilemma is existentially characterized by feelings that are very remote from lucidity, self-satisfaction, and a calm certainty of acting rightly.
In Rossellini’s Il Generale della Rovere, a small-time pimp and confidence man finds himself imprisoned by the Gestapo. The prison’s German commander asks this man to inform on fellow prisoners and, even, agrees to pay him handsomely for that service. The movie is about the moral dilemma faced by its protagonist, the petty criminal coerced into play-acting the role of the murdered resistance fighter General della Rovere in order to ingratiate himself with other partisans hiding among the crooks and other political prisoners in the jail. (The general’s family motto is: when facing two paths, always choose the one that is more difficult.) Rossellini’s pictures are very honest and there is a certain truth about the events portrayed by the film: the pimp and con man tricks himself into believing that he is noble, acts nobly and courageously and make brave proclamations – in the end, he becomes a heroic figure like the man that he is imitating and dies for convictions that he never felt until required to pretend that he is good and brave. Rossellini later said that he despised the film and felt that it was wretchedly contrived. I don’t think his criticisms of the picture are generally valid, but, I think, I understand his disdain for the relatively simple and unambiguous way in the which the movie presents its protagonists moral dilemma. The problem with the movie Il Generale della Rovere is a problem that afflicts all films – a picture-story can only show a man’s experience from the outside. A character may act with courage – film presents actions as clear theorems correlating to personality and psychology. A movie can’t show an inner struggle; it depicts only the exterior of inner struggle, a deed or action that is the sign that the struggle has been overcome. It is very difficult for a film, even one by a great director such as Rossellini, to adequately depict the hideous squalor of a true moral dilemma.
First, and foremost, the person confronting a real moral dilemma, as opposed to clearly defined choice between easily acknowledged good and evil, feels lonely, abandoned, isolated from others. Decision is confounded by an extreme sense of loneliness – you feel as if you are the only person who has ever faced such a dilemma. There is no one to talk to – not even God. No one knows the answer because no one has faced the precise difficulty in which you find yourself enmeshed.
Second, the dilemma overwhelms rational thought with a wild melange of conflicting emotions. Self-pity dissolves into rage and anger. Sorrow undercuts pride. Not only do you not know how to think about the dilemma, you don’t even know how to feel about it.
Third, a moral dilemma does not present itself as choice between good and evil. Rather, an actual moral dilemma is experienced as a horrible choice between evils that seem approximately identical in misery. No good choice exists or can be imagined to exist. All choices are equally abhorrent and lead to identically awful outcomes.
Fourth, the person facing a moral dilemma is wracked with guilt. Guilt also obscures clarity of thought. A truly moral person who has made correct decisions and lived ethically should not be facing such an awful quandary – thus, to be confronted with a moral dilemma is, itself, evidence of being profoundly immoral and, therefore, constitutionally unable to make the right decision.
Accordingly, a moral dilemma worthy of the name is characterized by an abiding sense of extreme loneliness, uncertainty, paralyzing fear, and guilt. If action results – and most often, I fear, the result of the dilemma is complete torpor and benumbed paralysis – the clarity of the action bears no resemblance to the existential misery from which that action resulted.
As I considered these matters, one of my law partners entered my office to speak with me. He stood in front of my desk, holding a brown red-rope file. While he was talking to me, something dropped from a ceiling vent directly overhead, a grey flake that fell onto the back of his head. He whirled to claw at whatever it was that had surprised him in its descent. For an instant, he spun like a dog trying to bite its tail. I said: “It looks like a moth, a dead moth, dropped out of the vent.” I told him that I didn’t think that the thing was on him anymore. We inspected the floor. Under my desk, in the shadow, I could see the thing lurking, a vaguely rectangular silvery shape. “Just a dead moth,” I said. But when I reached toward the thing, it sprouted a multitude of legs and scurried away. “A house centipede,” I said. “Why did the thing have to fall on me?” my partner said mournfully. The centipede was a half-inch long and horrible with long swift legs. I crushed it under my shoe.
“I hope this isn’t some sort of sign,” my partner said.
“An emblem,” I told him.